In this essay I am going to discuss the modernist architect Le Corbusier and his proposal for a new modernist city, and whether these values have been successfully used to shape urban planning

As described by Glaeser (2011), ‘cities magnify human strengths’. This is what Le Corbusier wanted to achieve with a modern city. Corbusier was a believer of Taylorism, Taylor’s theory supported the concept that the city should be a catalyst for the social and economic change that was occurring during modernity and that different sections of the city should have different purposes. Old ideologies where replaced with new ones during this period. This futuristic ideology is seen throughout modernism.


Corbusier had a vision of a contemporary social utopia in the form of high rise buildings. He proposed the ‘Radiant City’; This would involve destroying western Paris and creating cruciform towers for offices and large open green spaces. The radiant city seems almost mechanical and depicts a city of order and efficiency. All areas of life where separate, residential work and leisure areas where clearly zoned. The aim of this plan was to solve problems of decongestion but also increase the density of the population whilst maintaining large open green spaces. This would be achieved using levelled transportation, for example heavier traffic would be below ground whilst pedestrian roads would be raised so that both where separate. This creates large open space whilst still being a functioning city.

Corbusier was a modernist, he said, “pre- machine civilization has finished” suggesting he believed an era has ended so it is time to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

Stuyvesant Town

Despite the radiant city never being built, Corbusier’s towers in a park concept is seen to have influenced urban planning. Stuyvesant town in New York is an example of this. Built in 1945 by architect Robert Moses, the cruciform towers have remarkable resemblance to Corbusier’s’ designs. Furthermore, ‘600 buildings once containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools and two theatres, were razed,’ (Dana Schulz, 2015). Like the radiant city, pedestrians and cars are separated. In this case Le Corbusier’s concept for urban planning has been successful. This was a common occurrence in New York as the modernism movement moved to America.

However, Jane Jacobs would argue that the radiant city is not a successful urban planning strategy. She was against the concept that poor areas should be demolished and rebuilt. She is famously known for protesting Moses’ highway being built through New York in 1958. The idea behind the highway was to improve efficiency and stop heavy traffic.

However, some would argue the true purpose was to raise property values. After the great depression Robert Moses found the slum areas in New York repulsive, often describing them as a cancer. He believed in applying Corbusier’s modernist logic and destroying and rebuilding would solve the problems in New York. This is the early signs of gentrification which occurs in many cities. Whilst the city may become more aesthetically pleasing, the inhabitants can no longer afford to live there.

Jacobs views where more community approached, ‘cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only when they are created by everybody’, (Jane Jacobs, 1961). Jacobs believed that city planners should look at how the city is being used by the people and then improve on these qualities. She believed that all the city is connected including old and new buildings and crowded streets. Whilst it may look chaotic, it is an ‘ecosystem’ that functions due to the connections and interactions between people. She saw that you couldn’t decide how people would use the city by designing it a certain way, you must design the city based on how people interact in the city.

This is demonstrated in Philadelphia. Edmund Bacons 1949-70 urban development was representative of modernity. He revitalised Philadelphia creating express ways, parks, and high rise housing. However, pre-development the streets where crowded, after the development it was very empty despite being new and modern. Jacobs was against Bacon’s view of eliminating ‘sidewalk culture’, in her view it is the chaos and disorder that creates a functioning city. Her ideology is the antithesis of Corbusier’s designs.

Corbusier’s theory for city planning is shown to have influenced Lúcio Costa in the city plan for Brasilia showing perfectly geometrical and zoned into separate areas. However, Jacobs theories for city planning show in the failures of Brasilia and other apartment blocks in cities. The people wanted public spaces and these areas became poor and centres of crime. From this perspective Le Corbusier’s planning theory is not a successful urban planning strategy.

However, Corbusier’s city redevelopment is seen to have influenced city planners across America. In St. Louis, the Pruitt-Igoe (fig 3.) housing project follows Corbusier’s ‘towers in a park’ approach.


Nevertheless, this building complex was destroyed after 18 years due to high crime and poverty rates. These two examples demonstrate Corbusier’s theory for urban planning may be a solution for large urbanization and overpopulation in theory but not in practice.

However, the failure of these high rise social housing developments may be due to incorrect appropriation of Corbusier’s theory. The radiant city’s high rise buildings where designed for work spaces not housing. Therefore it could be argued that city planners such as Moses may have seen high rise as a cheap option for social housing. While this may benefit the developers due to saving costs it is not sustainable housing as it doesn’t benefit the people which should be the priority in city planning. In Corbusiers social construct, wealth is spread equally and people work and live in similar buildings as eachother. This has not been taken into consideration in buildings inspired by this model. Maybe this is why these examples have failed, they haven’t used the ‘towers in a park’ vision as it was intended.

Overall, I think Corbusier’s ‘radiant city’ is successful as a city planning strategy in some ways. Corbusier’s drawings were pivotal in modernist architecture and have influenced city planners since. This is shown by the number of cities around the world with high rise buildings and green spaces. Therefore Corbusiers ideas have been interpreted in city planning today. However, there are some areas in which this theory is unsuccessful. Corbusier was interested in modernity and disregarding the old. This ‘mechanical city’ is designed for efficiency and doesn’t consider the people living in the city. Furthermore, the way city planners have interpreted Corbusiers designs often results in poor social housing that has high crime rates. This shows that whilst Corbusier has influenced city planning, high rise housing may not be the answer for an expanding city population.

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